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Gastroenteritis
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Gastroenteritis

Diseases & Conditions A-Z

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INFECTIOUS DISEASE

Viral Illnesses

Gastroenteritis is a nonspecific term for a variety of pathologic states of the gastrointestinal tract. The primary manifestation is diarrhea, but it may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. A universal definition of diarrhea does not exist, although patients seem to have no difficulty defining their own situation. Although most definitions center around the frequency, consistency, and water content of stools, the author prefers the definition that diarrhea stools take the shape of their container.

A few hours ago you were enjoying a plate of raw oysters at your favorite restaurant, but now you're doubled over with cramps. Or maybe you're stuck in your hotel in with a bad case of traveler's diarrhea. Then again, maybe your whole family is down with the stomach flu.

If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you or someone in your family may have viral gastroenteritis - an intestinal infection marked by watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and nausea or vomiting. Although this probably won't make you feel any better, viral gastroenteritis is one of the most common acute illnesses, with millions of cases reported annually.

You usually develop gastroenteritis because you've been in contact with someone who's already infected or because you've ingested contaminated food or water. If you're otherwise healthy, you're likely to recover without any complications, although you may feel miserable for a week or more. But for infants, older adults and people with compromised immune systems, gastroenteritis can be deadly.

There's no effective treatment for gastroenteritis, so prevention is key. In addition to avoiding food and water that may be contaminated, thorough and frequent hand washing is your best defense.

Signs and symptoms

Although it's commonly called stomach flu, gastroenteritis isn't the same as influenza. Real flu (influenza) affects your respiratory system — your nose, throat and lungs.

Gastroenteritis, on the other hand, attacks your intestines, causing signs and symptoms such as:

  • Watery, usually no bloody diarrhea. Bloody diarrhea usually means you have a more severe infection.

  • Abdominal cramps and pain.

  • Nausea, vomiting or both.

  • Occasional muscle aches or Headache.

  • Low-grade fever.

Depending on the cause, signs and symptoms may appear within a few hours to a few days after you're infected. They usually last just a day or two, but occasionally they may persist as long as 10 days.

Because the symptoms are similar, it's easy to confuse viral diarrhea with diarrhea caused by bacteria such as salmonella and Escherichia coli (E. coli) or parasites such as giardia.

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